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  1. Environment

USF researchers document Cape Canaveral launch complexes before they slip into the sea

A 3D rendering of a blockhouse at Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. [Photo courtesy of the University of South Florida Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections]

The launch complexes at Cape Canaveral have seen better days.

The metal beams that helped send the first American into orbit have corroded from salty air. Hurricanes and rising sea levels have carved out escarpments and erased sand dunes.

At Launch Complex 34, the encroaching shoreline has not yet reached the launch pad but has reached places where fuel tanks and trucks used to be during the Apollo era. Along the nearby Banana River, the cemeteries of the Cape's first settlers are eroding away.

It will be 20 to 25 years until the ocean reaches all of the launch complexes, said Tom Penders, the 45th Space Wing's cultural resources manager. But he isn't panicking.

The buildings will live on, not only in memory but also digitally in 3D and sub-millimeter detail put together by laser scanners.

For the past five years, Lori Collins and Travis Doering, co-directors of the Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections at the University of South Florida Libraries, have been traveling with a team to Cape Canaveral to collect detailed information about launch complexes and buildings.

Collins said the team has documented seven launch complexes — some related to intercontinental ballistics, others to the Apollo or Mercury missions — and a few other unique buildings around the base. Penders estimated there are about nine complexes that are sitting around unused, though one day they could be renovated and reused by commercial companies.

The pilot for the project was a scan of the "beehive"-shaped blockhouses that were constructed around 1960 as part of the U.S. response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Penders said. The domed buildings were made by stacking burlap sacks of concrete. The burlap has since rotted away but laser scanners can pick up the pattern of the fabric imprinted in the concrete.

The scanners — around the size of a toaster — sit on a tripod and make a full circular sweep, taking in a million physical points every second from over 300 yards away.

The team is also working on other scanning and archeology projects from before Cape Canaveral's space era. There are prehistoric burial mounds and occupation sites and a fish camp at the tip of the cape. Some call it "stink town" because it is where shark livers used to be harvested, Penders said.

Collins estimated that for every week they spend in the field there are three or four months of data processing. The laser information is combined with existing satellite data and old building plans to reconstruct the landscape and buildings that are closed because of asbestos and lead contamination.

While preserving military and space history is certainly a priority, the data won't just "sit on a shelf," Collins said.

Since the structures have been scanned and re-scanned over the past five years, environmental and cultural managers can see how quickly the coastline or a building is degrading. Thermal cameras are used to identify water damage on buildings.

"Is it fiscally prudent to spend $1 million on a launch complex that's going to be gone in 20 years? No, it's not," Penders said.

Conservative models project that the ocean near the Kennedy Space Center will rise between five to eight inches by the 2050s. If the ice sheets continue to melt as they have been, that number could be 21 to 24 inches.

When Doering was growing up in Connecticut, he watched the famous moonwalk in black and white. Hopefully, with his and Collin's work, the next generation can see the complexes in virtual reality.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times. Contact Amanda Zhou at azhou@tampabay.com. Follow @AmondoZhou.

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